Books Tolkien Read: “The Golden Key” By George MacDonald

In honor of J.R.R. Tolkien’s 123rd birthday, I’m going to start a new series. Tolkien, of course, was a voracious reader. I want to experience the same books Tolkien read–whether he loved them or not. This first one isn’t a novel, but rather a short story.

The Story

“The Golden Key” is a fairy tale about a boy who wants to find the key that lies at the end of the rainbow and a motherless girl who is neglected by her father. The boy finds the key but he doesn’t know into what lock it goes. The girl is lead away from her home and wanders in the woods of Fairyland. The two eventually meet in a cottage inhabited by a beautiful, noble woman named Grandmother.

Grandmother sends the pair, Mossy, as he was known to his friends, and Tangle, as she was called by her father’s negligent servants, on a quest to find the lock in which the key fits. During their journey they cross a sea of shadows. The shadows are of beautiful trees, flowers, birds, beast, and people, but the children–who are now grown old–cannot see what is casting the shadows.

Eventually the two are separated, as Grandmother warned them might happen. They press on their separate ways. Tangle finds the Old Man of the Sea, who sends her to the Old Man of the Earth, who in turn sends her to the Old Man of the Fire. None of them can tell her how to get to the shadow-country that she and Mossy saw.

Mossy meets the Old Man of the Sea after Tangle. Because Mossy has the golden key, the Old Man sends him a different way. Eventually Mossy and Tangle are reunited and they find the keyhole in which the golden key fits. To their delight, it leads to the country that cast the beautiful shadows.

My Thoughts

I’ve read a few of MacDonald’s novels–and they’re much more interesting than this story. It’s a pretty standard fairy tale. There are certainly some allegorical elements, but they’re not very interesting. Overall, it comes off a tad preachy.

Tolkien’s Thoughts

According to Douglas A. Anderson, Tolkien was once asked to write a preface to this story. He had been found of the story before; upon re-reading it, he dismissed it as “ill-written, incoherent, and bad, in spite of a few memorable passages,” (Tales Before Tolkien, 27).

Anderson goes on to note that Tolkien’s preface–which was never finished–took on a life of its own. Eventually it turned into Tolkien’s own lovely fairy story, Smith of Wooton Major.

Overall, I can’t say I would recommend this story heartily. If you’d like to read George MacDonald, you’re much better off reading At the Back of the North Wind or The Princess and the Goblin. I believe Tolkien might agree.

Photo Credit: Alejandro Escamilla

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